Kaizen, like many other Japanese phrases, has been translated many ways. The most common English translation is "change for the better". Note the two key words: change and better. Too often companies make changes that result in poorer overall performance. This, obviously, is not kaizen. You don't want to make changes and have things get worse! The way to avoid this is to properly plan for and carry out your "change for the better".
I'll need to clarify one point before we get started. Although the word kaizen is translated as change for the better, "kaizen" is often used to describe a team event, lasting two or more days and resulting in a series of rapid improvements to a process. This is the definition or use that we'll be working with in this article, and we'll refer to it as a "kaizen event".
Kaizen events can be very powerful instruments for positive change. Kaizen events can jumpstart a company into becoming a Lean enterprise. Kaizen events can do this only if they are planned and executed in conjunction with a well thought out business strategy that eschews waste and embraces Lean. For the sake of time (and space) we'll just assume that a company has just such a strategy.
To start, a kaizen event should be planned at least three to four weeks in advance. This is for several reasons:
First, it gives participants who normally don't work the days or hours that the event will be scheduled enough time to make arrangements for child care or other personal arrangements.
Second, it gives supervisors time to plan how the participants' job functions will be covered during the time of the kaizen event and to prepare for supporting the team with equipment maintenance requests that might arise during the event. You must allow the kaizen event team members to have an uninterrupted session and not allow them to be pulled away and back into their day-to-day roles, and you must provide them with the support resources that they'll require. Not doing so is extremely discourteous to the team and it gives team members a reason to feel that their participation – and the event itself – is not considered valuable by management.
Third, it allows time for the kaizen event team leader, team facilitator, and possibly other key players to plan out the event with members of the management team, usually some type of steering team. This planning is the most critical, and most often overlooked and ignored, part of the entire kaizen event process.
Planning for a kaizen event
Planning a kaizen event starts with documenting a scope for the event. Key questions that should be answered are:
- Why is the event being held? What is the business reason?
- Where does it fit into the company's overall business strategy?
- When and where will the event be held?
- What is the process or work area(s) that will be affected?
- Who is/are the supervisors of the area(s) that will be affected/impacted?
- Do current state and future state value stream maps (VSMs) exist for these areas?
- What is/are the current metric(s) for the area(s)?
- What is/are the desired metric(s) for the area(s)?
- What are the boundaries or limits of authority for the kaizen team? Examples include: setting a limit on purchases of supplies and equipment during the event; making decisions on authorizing overtime for non-team members.
- Who are the team members?
- Who is the team sponsor? (usually a representative of the steering team)
- Who will be responsible for follow up activities after the kaizen event?
These questions should be answered a minimum of three calendar weeks before the actual kaizen event begins. This allows team leaders and management time to clarify expectations and roles during and after the actual event.
Performing the kaizen event
Regardless of the scope or duration of a kaizen event, certain roles and expectations must be met.
The team leader (or perhaps a non-team member acting as a facilitator) must keep the team focused on the scope of the kaizen event. It's very tempting and easy for a team to veer off in a completely unexpected direction. It's the role of the team leader and facilitator to keep everyone's "eyes on the prize".
The team must focus on the process and not the person(s) performing the process. If any performance issues arise during the event, they need to be dealt with through normal company channels and not by the team. Bring them to the attention of the team sponsor and move on with the task at hand.
The team must develop an action plan that will meet the expectations set during the planning process. If there's time, the team should being implementing the action plan to gauge whether or not the planned improvements will be effective. If it appears that the action plan will not result in the desired outcomes, the team needs to adjust the plan and try again.
Once the team has agreed on an action plan, it is responsible for communicating the action plan to the rest of the company. This is usually done at a wrap-up session on the final day of the event, where team members give a briefing to the steering team on what has transpired during the event.
Follow up to the kaizen event
Too often the end of a kaizen event becomes the end of the actual improvement efforts. This, too, is a failure borne from poor planning.
Once the kaizen event team has debriefed the steering team and presented its results to the steering committee, the person who was designated to be responsible for follow up activities becomes the owner of the improvement effort. This is usually the team leader, team sponsor, or the supervisor(s) of the affected area(s). If proper event planning was completed, this individual will already know about this responsibility, yet too often there's a "set it and forget it" mentality that occurs after a kaizen event. The team disbands, and everyone goes back to fighting the same fires they were fighting before. Any improvements that were realized or expected now become ancient history, unless someone is given the authority and responsibility for the follow up.
If all of this sounds familiar, it should. A properly planned and executed kaizen event should follow the Plan-Do-Check-Adjust cycle – also known as the Shewhart Cycle or Deming Wheel – pioneered by Walter Shewhart and popularized by W. Edwards Deming. PDCA is a revamping of the Scientific Method:
Make an observation (plan)
Create a hypothesis (plan)
Test the hypothesis (do)
Analyze the results and take action (check and adjust)
The kaizen event, when planned and implemented properly, is an effective and powerful tool to drive continual improvement in any process or function. Like any Lean tool, kaizen events should be implemented only when there is a business need. Running a kaizen event simply for the sake of running an event dilutes the power behind the process of making "change for the better" and will result only in change for the sake of change. That will lead only to poor results.
If you cannot define a pressing need for holding a kaizen event, then don't hold the event. Go back to your Value Stream Maps (L&NW, October 2007) and find the next treasure of waste just waiting to be discovered. Use this map as your guide to plan your future improvement efforts – which may or may not result in a kaizen event – and continue on the journey of continual improvement.